Criminologist feest on investigative practice: “the police have power of definition”.

Bremen criminal law professor Johannes Feest has studied how stereotypes influence police investigative work.

Where does the lie begin? The accusation that the press conceals information comes from the political left and right Photo: dpa

site: Mr. Feest, what do you think about the fact that after the New Year’s Eve incidents in Cologne and Hamburg, there is again more talk about the origin and nationality of suspects?

Johannes Feest: I have long thought that it is not okay for the press to write, based on police reports, that someone was robbed or knocked down by a "Turk," for example. It is incomplete information. If you’re going to be so precise about it, you also want to know whether the other person is also a Turk, if it matters at all.

Doesn’t it feed the accusation that the "lying press" is concealing important facts if the origin of a suspect is not reported?

I’m not in favor of keeping quiet about it, but one shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations. The accusation that the press is doing something wrong can come from different directions: In the case of Pegida, it comes from the right, but people can also think from the left that xenophobia is being reinforced by the media. Basically, I’m quite happy if the daily press sticks to the press code.

You mean that in reporting the affiliation of a suspect to a minority should only be mentioned if there is a "justifiable factual reference"?

The problem is an almost thoughtless passing on of police reports that concern individual cases and form an unquestioned statistic in the minds of readers. It is a different matter when the weekly or monthly press makes summary analyses and systematically pursues a question, with an open end and considerations.

In the case of the New Year’s Eve attacks, the cultural background of the perpetrators could possibly be relevant. Shouldn’t there be a social discussion about this? Isn’t it similar to honor killings?

That’s what happened with honor killings. And in Bremen, there has been a discussion for over a year about unaccompanied minor refugees. There have been back-and-forth discussions about whether to put them in a closed home. At some point, the discussion was conducted in a detailed and reasonable manner. And that’s the only way to make a shoe out of it. I was pleased to see that the daily press wrote less and less about the nationality of the perpetrator.

76, was Professor of Law Enforcement, Corrections and Criminal Law at the University of Bremen from 1974 to 2005.

Which is now on the rise again …

This leads to generalizing attributions. My Hamburg colleague Sebastian Scheerer has called it the "political-publicist amplification cycle." Under certain circumstances, the police start it by claiming that they are increasingly dealing with perpetrators from certain countries. But it can also come from politics. The media pick it up and reinforce it. I didn’t know Scheerer’s term when I did a study on police perceptions of crime decades ago, otherwise I would have used it in the process.

Your study was about the "defining power of the police." What came out of that?

First, that the police have de facto great power to define situations as suspicious or dangerous. This does not necessarily mean the same thing that lawyers call discretion, but something much more fundamental.

How is this to be understood?

It depends on what the respective stereotypes are that the police adhere to and which they partly help to produce by considering certain people to be particularly suspicious or particularly dangerous according to very external characteristics. Right now, after the New Year’s Eve events, North Africans look like this.

Whatever exactly a "North African" looks like.

At least, people who are considered to be "North Africans" in terms of their appearance are checked more closely and handled more severely. And then, in case of doubt, something always comes out: If the police raid a home for asylum seekers, as they did in Duisburg, the result will be violations of the Aliens Act or minor offenses.

In the police crime statistics, a distinction has been made for years between crimes committed by nationals and those committed by foreigners.

I think that’s perfectly fine.


Because it reflects a statistical value that emerges in the course of a given year. Conclusions can be drawn from it, from the police to academia.

When it comes to the number of crimes, for example, isn’t it not explained enough that there are acts that only foreigners can commit, that is, that many residence crimes are among them?

That is part of the analysis and has improved a lot over time among police statisticians: When, for example, the Federal Criminal Police Office publishes its annual crime statistics, the statistical data are interpreted carefully and the background to their creation is explained. There are politicians who then tell only half the truth. But such background is part of it.

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